Michelle Williams Poses as a Racist Caricature

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So, here’s something. Actress and Brooklyn resident Michelle Williams is on the cover of the latest AnOther Magazine and she looks…different from how she usually appears. How does she look different exactly?

Well, for starters she’s wearing a dark wig with long, thick braids. Her hair is adorned with feathers. The photograph is black and white, and her face is heavily made up to emphasize her cheekbones and general bone structure. Jezebel flat-out says that Williams is posing in “Redface.” Refinery29 agrees with this assessment and says that not only is the photo evocative of Native Americans because of the style of dress and the wig, but also because it references traditional portraiture of Native Americans. Refinery29 points out that the “definite contouring around the nose and the cheekbones…not only makes her look nearly unrecognizable, but also appears to mimic the stark relief of facial features often seen in early portraits of Native American women. The same mimicry applies [to] her stoic, unsmiling pose — also a typical trope in that particular genre and period of art history.”

I think that the reference is pretty damn clear. It doesn’t take much more than a superficial glance at the image to see what look the stylist was trying to achieve. This raises a lot of questions, of course. Why was Williams ok with this? Did she really not consider the image’s potential to offend? Is she unaware of the implications of a white woman assuming the clothes and physical signifiers of another race or culture? Furthermore, Williams is promoting the film “Oz: The Great and Powerful” and the cover includes the headline “There’s No Place Like Home.” Refinery29 points out that while the line is clearly a nod to the film, it is hard to ignore “the fact that thousands of Native Americans were forcefully ousted from their homes (not to mention slaughtered and denied full rights of citizenship) when European settlers came to this continent.”

This obviously isn’t the first time that a fashion magazine has shown zero sensitivity to issues of race or cultural appropriation, but it seems particularly disappointing this time because of Williams’s involvement. When a racially insensitive editorial or advertisement features a model, it is usually the publication or company behind the photographs that gets blamed. This is frequently because it is assumed that the model—unless very well-known—has limited agency as to how she is portrayed. However, Michelle Williams is an Oscar-nominated star, who presumably has final approval over how she is styled, so the fact that she tacitly condones this is, frankly, shocking. I refuse to believe that it’s too much to expect some degree of thoughtful deliberation before putting together a fashion spread. And for every person who thinks that condemning this cover is over-reacting and that it shouldn’t be taken that seriously because it’s fashion, I will just say bullshit. Just because something is related to fashion, doesn’t mean that it can’t be aware of a greater consciousness and of society at large. We can all do better.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen